Vegas New Years Beats Last Year

Tourism officials in Las Vegas believed more tourists celebrated New Year’s Eve in Sin City than last year as hotels lowered prices to cope with a rough consumer economy, Mayor Oscar Goodman said Wednesday night.

Goodman told The Associated Press that 290,000 people were estimated to have filled the Las Vegas Strip, the downtown Fremont Street Experience and other tourist hotspots, eclipsing the 284,000 who came last year and beating the quarter-million Goodman and others had predicted earlier this month.

Goodman said people were coming in from out of town because they were ready to escape and have a little fun.

“They’re getting out of their humdrum problems and forgetting them, at least for the time being here in Las Vegas,” Goodman said. “For the locals, it’s almost the same thing—they’re suppressing whatever issues they’ve confronted during the past year and they’re just ready to let all the good things hang out and have a ball tonight.”

David Reed, 34, was one local from the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson who wanted to get rid of 2008.

“I had a strict philosophy of not going anywhere near the Strip on New Year’s Eve,” said Reed, who lost his job in May as an office worker. “I wanted to say good riddance to 2008, 2008 sucked.”

With nearly 140,000 rooms to fill across the city, casinos and hotels dropped prices to their cheapest New Year’s Eve levels in years in order to attract people to come for the holiday.

A spokesman for MGM Mirage Inc., which owns the most casinos of any company on the Las Vegas Strip, said more than 90 percent of rooms were filled at historically low prices.

Fewer flights, expensive gas and consumers’ tighter pursestrings has meant less revenue for Las Vegas casinos in 2008, forcing companies to delay building resort projects and lay off thousands of workers, a reflection of economic worries that have hit consumers on all levels.

In northern Nevada, Reno officials canceled their fireworks display for the first time since 2000, deciding it was inappropriate to spend $30,000 on fireworks with people losing their jobs and budgets tightening.

Reno police spokeswoman Leigha Struffert said people were staying mostly inside casinos and other businesses, and crowds were about a quarter the size compared with past years.

At Lake Tahoe, crowds were smaller and quieter than normal and only three arrests were made before midnight, spokesman Jim Halsey of the Douglas County Sheriff’s office said. Halsey said about 65,000 people were celebrating in the area, with roughly 12,000 on the streets.

“I think 2009 will be worse. So we have to enjoy now—the moment—and be prepared now for 2009,” said 24-year-old Santiago Mejilla, a Colombian native visiting Las Vegas from Vancouver, Canada.

Mejilla and a classmate were hoping to catch a bus from downtown Las Vegas to the Strip to stake out a spot on the crowded street for an 8-minute fireworks display coordinated from eight locations on the Las Vegas Strip and downtown as the clock struck midnight.

Moments after the downtown pyrotechnics, a public address announcer at the Fremont hotel-casino downtown announced the year’s first jackpot.

Mandi Rogers, 24, in town with her boyfriend from Lubbock Texas, said she had been planning the trip for five years and saved money by staying downtown instead of the typically more expensive Strip.

She says she wanted to ring in 2009 in grand style, and her boyfriend’s parents helped by paying for their hotel as a Christmas gift.

“We’re here for pretty cheap,” she said. “It was worth it, we’ve been waiting a long time.”

Police shut down most of the Las Vegas Strip to vehicle traffic by 6 p.m., and shut down freeway exits on the nearby Interstate that led to the resort corridor.

Nightclubs lined up celebrity hosts—singer Usher at the Bank at Bellagio and actress Denise Richards, singer Lance Bass and rapper DMC at Prive at Planet Hollywood, for example. Many clubs charged $200 just to get in the door.

The festivities included three made-for-TV stunts, including a 200-foot jump the height of the refurbished volcano at The Mirage hotel-casino by Robbie Knievel, son of the late daredevil Evel Knievel.

Knievel said after the successful launch that his dad would have been proud, and said his New Year’s resolution was to live like a famous Rolling Stones guitarist in 2009.

“Like Keith Richards, I’m going to keep smoking, drinking and jumping in my fourth decade,” the 46-year-old stuntman said.

A few minutes before Knievel’s attempt, 36-year-old Rhys Millen backflipped an offroad truck but rolled the truck on the landing. He came out of the truck on his feet, shaking his head, as crews rushed to see if he was OK.

“To have that disappointment happen just then, I can’t put it into words,” Millen said afterward, his arm around his wife. “It’s nothing unless you drive away.”

Millen wanted to do the same trick last year but couldn’t because he was injured and damaged his truck on a practice jump.

A third stunt featured 27-year-old Aussie Robbie Maddison jumping a motocross bike on top of the replica of the Arc De Triomphe at Paris Las Vegas. Maddison jumped to the top of the Arc perfectly, and landed a 50-foot dismount to a landing ramp below, but came away from the stunt with a bloody hand.

Maddison told the AP that he believed he had torn ligaments in the hand, requiring him to go to the hospital for stitches and an evaluation.